Great Expectations

Understanding the good, bad, or neither of managing expectations

Photo by Todd Trapani on

My life is based on expectations, it always has been. From personal projects to relationships, I have found myself both excelling and derailing. Through success and failure, expectations are always underneath my life experience.

In some ways, these expectations have framed the way I treat other people, for better or for worse. They have framed the way that I treat myself. They have caused me intense joy and intense sorrow, depending on which way the pendulum of reality swung.

I would like to share some of those successes and failures, as well as how I am learning to understand and live with these expectations.

Emotional Yin Yang

I have played guitar since I was 11 years old. Pearl Jam and Nirvana were among the first bands that inspired me. I would sit next to my stereo, pressing play and rewind over and over again, as I tried to learn the intros to Evenflow and Lithium. Eventually, I would get it, and I would play it until I had the full rhythm and notes. It would take a long time, but the expectations that I could and should be able to learn these songs kept me grinding away until I achieved the goal.

That same child held high expectations for Lego projects as well. The three-foot tower of tiny building blocks was expected to stay strong under the pressure applied as I added more and more blocks. Eventually, though, the upper third broke off and shattered as it hit the ground. Tiny fists formed, and the remaining two-thirds of the tower was demolished by this little frustrated boy, who expected building perfection.

This yin and yang of emotional response continued into my adult life, both the good and the bad. I continued to excel at guitar, and will still commit to learning new songs and learning new skills. That little frustrated boy still rears his nasty little fists at times though, and instead of knocking down Lego towers, I am tossing a poorly cut piece of flooring tile across the yard.

The greatest area of impact that high expectations, or rigid expectations, have had in my life though plays out in the roles of relationships, purpose, and the meaning of life.

The Meaning of Life

I will bend over backward for people sometimes because that’s what people should do for people they care about right? That’s an arrogant statement, but it is a view I have often held, and it’s a pretty high expectation considering how hard it is just touch our toes. To serve out of a sense of moral obligation or a tugging of the heart is a way that we change the world. To serve because I want to be served or receive recognition for that service walks the line of selfish ambition.

I believe that this longing to be admired and reciprocal service has driven me to do great things for people, and I truly find joy in helping others, yet I know that in unhealthy mental states, I have subconsciously created a debt that I expect to be repaid. Creating that debt on someone creates a burden, and it turns attempts to serve others into the reality of serving myself.

Knowing that expectations are always working behind the scenes, how do I maintain all of the good that they have reaped in my life and continually diminish the negative side effects?


“Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.” 

— Brandon Sanderson from The Way of Kings

My friend and wife were giving me an expectation intervention once because I had been getting angry with a lot of things in life. Stubbornly, I resisted acceptance of their diagnosis of not high expectations, but rigid expectations. Expectations aren’t inherently good or bad, so they shouldn’t be smothered or thrown out; I’m not even sure if they can be completely removed.

I am beginning to understand that expectations are signposts on the road I am traveling on, but they are not the car I’m driving. Expectations as the car, I may drive right off the cliff trying to force an outcome that has potentially shifted or changed, yet as a signpost, I can choose which road to take. Whereas I intended to go East, the new route may be taking me North.

Moving Forward

I want to hold on to great expectations in life, because they bring me hope, but perhaps defining great will help create more of a fluid path. For me to have a healthier mindset, and settle into a truly impactful life, great expectations mean flexible expectations. Dream, yet let those dreams take shape as they develop, have markers along the way, but realize that the idea that began the project may not be the final result of the project.

Maybe this journey of great expectations will lead to great impact, or maybe it won’t, but I believe it does create a good trajectory for life.

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